StarTribune Article

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The StarTribune ran an article Sunday January 11, 2015 that featured how our family created a pathway for our students to earn college degrees affordably. I am glad the article is generating conversation! I hope to draw attention to educational opportunities that are resourceful and won’t leave behind a generation in debt. I have received a number of questions and hope to answer some of them here.

I understand this is driven by college cost being too high, but it is sad. Yes, costs were the driving factor. As is true for many middle-income families, we would not qualify for free aid from the government and scholarships are at the discretion of some unnamed committee. Loans were inevitable. Each of my children made a choice early on as to how and when they wanted to pursue earning a college degree. That choice was grounded in reality – that they (not their parents) were responsible for the cost of their college education. Don’t think this understanding came easy or was make lightly. It took me two years of research before we came to these conclusions. But in talking to adults who are 35 years old and still making student loan payments, I am thankful my kids chose to be debt-free.

Were their degrees earned entirely through testing? No. Colleges have different credit transfer limitations as well as residential credit requirements (how many credits one must take to graduate through that college). Choose a college and understand their policies to create a cost-effective plan to earn the required credits. Testing out of generals (the first two years of college) is not uncommon. All three of our kids earned two-year degrees from our local community college (20 credits taken through the college, 40 earned through exams). Our two oldest earned their four-year degrees from Thomas Edison State College (which accepts an abundance of transfer credits). Our youngest is finishing his four-year degree through The College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota (90 credits transferred in and the last 32 credits need to be completed through them).

Aren’t they missing out? Unbundling is the key to finding value. We separated a college education from “the college experience”. Quality education is affordable – often free. Paying for the college experience is what can be expensive. Our kids found other avenues to engage in those experiences … maintaining a strong group of friends, joining a volleyball rec league, participating in youth-oriented events, volunteering at community organizations, active involvement in church activities, regular “meet you at the coffee shop” times, membership at a health club, weekend travel, camp counseling, holding a part-time job. By unbundling, students can choose how best to spend their “experience” dollars suited to their interests and do it within their budget.

What about classroom discussion and debate? My kids took several courses on a college campus. They also took college courses online, held internships, and participated in study groups. Exposure to ideas does not just happen in a classroom. That is traditionally how college credits are awarded though. Discussion and debate happens at the kitchen table, with peers over coffee, and with colleagues at work. Learning how to think critically and express ideas are life-long skills that won’t be mastered in any classroom.

But are they really learning? For a long time I held onto the idea that college-level learning can only happen after high school, only with a professor at the front of the room directing the process, and only on a college campus. Honestly, giving up the idea that my kids would “go away to college” was difficult for me. But to achieve that idea, it would cost more than we could afford. Credit-by-exam allows students to demonstrate mastery of material by passing a test. Today I would argue that passing a test is what students taking college classes have to do as well.  What’s different is that the student determines the method of learning, not the professor.

How is a degree earned this way viewed? This was definitely a consideration. Like many, I assumed a residential college experience was necessary to land a good job. Today, I would argue otherwise. My oldest accelerated his education earning a bachelors at 18 and then a masters at 21 (working two part-time jobs to pay for it). Coupled with three internships, he was offered a job in his career field (Congressional aid in Washington DC). Where one gets a degree from might be a factor in getting that first job. But not everyone will graduate from a name-brand institution. Instead, our focus was on understanding, developing, and demonstrating skills that employers would recognize as valuable (such as communication and critical thinking skills).

Is this about entering the workforce early? Certainly! If that is a goal. However, that was not our goal. Raising prepared, debt-free, creative, independent adults who love the Lord was ultimately our goal.

Is there an exam for cleaning one’s room? I love this question! It’s at the heart of “who is responsible”? Students do need to buy in to the process of owning their education because nagging won’t get it done. Students don’t have to be brilliant to learn, but they do need to be motivated. Our kids understood that any college credits they earned while in high school were on our dime, but the day they graduated high school, college tuition was their responsibility. Not every kid is motivated by an understanding of resources though. We also recognized that short term recognition was beneficial, so we had fun celebrating the small successes along the way. Until motivation is internal, external rewards are helpful! Bragging rights, recognition by grandparents, Chinese buffet lunch after testing, an ongoing tally of credits earned, study groups with friends, were all ideas we used.

Is this just for smart kids? It certainly helps to have an academic bent because that is what college measures. But smart is not what makes a good student. Being resourceful is. The ability to maximize learning based on one’s learning style (study smarter, not harder), knowing what is being measured and how to achieve that standard, and having the confidence to advocate for oneself. If your student aspires to be employed or be college-successful, being resourceful is key.

Are there tests other than CLEP? You bet. The StarTribune article focused on the most popular credit-by-exam program. CLEP has been available since 1967 and is offered through The College Board, providers of AP and SAT exams. DSST is another global for-credit exam program that we used. These tests are also recommended for credit by the American Council on Education. Check with your college as to what they accept. In Minnesota, our state colleges and universities (MnSCU) are required to award credit for CLEP exams. They are required to have a policy for acceptance of DSST. It might be a yes or no. Sometimes this information is easily accessible on the college website, sometimes it is buried a bit deep. Until colleges are required to be transparent with this information, someone in the family has to be the designated sleuth.

Next Steps? There are several great resources that I’d recommend. Start by reading the FAQs on this website. Then move on to the Links shared on the right column. Don’t think you have to understand the entire process and all the resources right way. Until there is a clearinghouse of information established and colleges make the process transparent, parents/students will need to advocate for themselves.